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Knowledge organisers: what they are and how to use them
Brush up on what an effective knowledge organiser looks like and how to write one. Download examples you can adapt, and get tips on what not to do with yours.
What are they?
A knowledge organiser is a single sheet of paper that lists the important facts – not practical skills – that pupils should know by the end of a unit of work.
Use it as:
- A planning tool, to clearly outline the core knowledge that should be taught
- A quizzing tool, to help pupils boost their recall of key knowledge
- An assessment tool, to help teachers check whether pupils have learned the key knowledge
Who uses them?
What makes a good one?
- A4. It should fit onto 1 side of A4 paper – any more is overwhelming
- Chunked. It should be sorted into clear sections (usually including 'vocabulary')
- Numbered. Each item of 'knowledge' (or 'fact') should be numbered, to make the organiser easy to use as a quiz
- Concise. Each fact should be short and clear – avoid rambling explanations
- Factual. Keep practical skills out – focus on knowledge only
How to write them
It's likely that your subject leaders and/or other teachers in charge of curriculum planning will do this. Here's how to go about it in 3 key steps:
- Decide on the unit or topic you want to focus on and make it specific – e.g. call it 'Anglo-Saxon Britain: 410-1066' rather than 'castles and knights'
(Use your curriculum maps to identify your units or topics. If your curriculum maps need sharpening, take a look at some examples from primary schools here, or for a secondary school example, see these curriculum maps from Carnforth High School in Lancashire.)
- Create a list of the 'foundational facts' for that unit or topic – what you'd expect pupils to know by the end of studying it
- Make sure you write each fact in as few words as possible
- Sort your foundational facts into logical themes or 'chunks' – for example, 'important people' or 'timeline of events' – and present them in tables under clear headings
- Make each fact 'quizzable' by splitting it into 2 parts in the table (for example, 'leader of Germany in the Second World War' in one column, and 'Adolf Hitler' in another)
Examples you can adapt
Download these examples of knowledge organisers provided by Reach Academy Feltham and adapt them for your own use.
These are primary school examples, but you'll still find them useful if you're in a secondary school as you'll get ideas about layout and the kind of information included.
Year 3 – history (ancient Greece)
Year 4 – history (Anglo-Saxons and Scots)
Year 5 – history (Middle East)
Year 6 – history (First World War)
10 ways to use knowledge organisers in the classroom
5 for teachers (planning, delivery and assessment)
- Set the scene: show the knowledge organiser at the start of the lesson, and draw attention to the facts that pupils will explore and how these fit into the bigger picture. This'll give pupils a sense of perspective and coherence
- Assess pupils' knowledge: give pupils a 'blanked out' knowledge organiser as an end-of-unit assessment, to help judge how much of your intended curriculum pupils have actually learned
- Check previous knowledge: give pupils the knowledge organiser for a previously covered topic at intervals that get increasingly longer, to help them revisit and retain key facts
- Make clear links with prior and future learning: when lesson planning, look at knowledge organisers from previous or later year groups/units to quickly get a sense of what pupils have previously covered or need to know for future units
- Ensure progression: tailor key concepts and vocabulary on the knowledge organiser so that they become increasingly complex and ensure pupils are progressing
5 for pupils (retrieval activities)
- Flashcards: get pupils to make a set of flashcards that include all of knowledge items for one section. They can then use them in spare moments for self-quizzing
- Paired retrieval: get pupils to quiz each other on a knowledge item. Partner A reads out one part of the knowledge item (for example, ‘The Sea of Tranquility') and Partner B responds with the associated information ('a large, dark area of the moon where the astronauts of Apollo 11 landed')
- Self-quizzing: ask pupils to use a blank piece of paper to cover one column of a table on the knowledge organiser, give them a few minutes to write down the associated definitions to each term, then allow them to check their answers
- Online quizzing: use an online quizzing platform such as Quizlet or Kahoot to create questions linked to the knowledge organiser, which pupils can complete independently or for homework
- 'Just a Minute': based on the popular Radio 4 show, ask pupils to try to list facts from their knowledge organiser for 1 minute straight, without repetition, hesitation or deviation
Avoid common mistakes
A knowledge organiser, like any classroom tool, is only effective if everyone is using it correctly.
- Don't ignore the knowledge organiser. If you do, so will pupils – so don’t give out the knowledge organiser at the start of the unit and then never mention it again
- Don’t encourage the idea that 'it’s on the knowledge organiser so you don’t need to learn it'. The aim of the knowledge organiser is to transfer all of its facts to pupils’ long-term memory. They can then think in a more sophisticated way
- Don't rely entirely on the knowledge organiser during lessons. The facts on a knowledge organiser are the crystallised, necessary information about a topic but they don't represent the topic in its entirety. Teachers should still model, provide explanations, make connections and elaborate on the material
- Don't make quizzing 'high stakes'. Frequent, low-stakes quizzing has many benefits, which soon diminish as higher stakes are introduced (for example, issuing a detention for failing to achieve 8/10). Quizzing is a learning event in itself, and not simply an assessment check
Jon Hutchinson, assistant headteacher at Reach Academy Feltham, helped us write this article. Jon also works as a tutor on Ambition Institute’s Masters in Expert Teaching course. He has sat on expert groups for the Department for Education, Ofsted and the Standards and Testing Agency. Learn more about the curriculum development project at Reach Academy Feltham here.
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